AS CATHOLIC Archbishop of Melbourne for the past 11 years, I welcome the government's announcement of the inquiry into how religious and other organisations in Victoria handle allegations of criminal abuse of children within their organisations.
The form of the inquiry is a matter for government. I welcome the Premier's confirmation that the parliamentary committee will be provided with the resources necessary for it to discharge its important responsibilities.
I am committed to the archdiocese's full participation in the inquiry.
I think it is regrettable that some have moved to condemn the inquiry before it begins.
There is no doubt that sexual abuse has done untold damage to individual victims and to the community. The committee's broad mandate is a recognition by government that sexual abuse of children is widespread and needs examination.
But I reject absolutely any allegations that I have covered up crimes.
I have every confidence that this will be confirmed by the inquiry and that it will be found that the archdiocese has dealt with this very difficult issue fairly, reasonably and appropriately.
I remain very concerned that the welfare and wellbeing of all victims be protected during the course of the inquiry so that victims who have suffered much are not subject to further trauma.
I am pleased that the government has recognised the pressures that may be imposed on victims who wish to appear and give evidence, by allowing the inquiry to take evidence in private hearings, where it considers it appropriate in the interests of victims or for other reasons.
Since 1996, the archdiocese's complaints process, the Melbourne Response, has offered victims a choice. Those who wish to go to the police are encouraged to do so. For those who do not and for those whose allegations cannot be investigated by the police, the Independent Commissioner is available to investigate and uphold their complaints in a compassionate and professional manner. Compensation and free counselling are also available.
I want to make it absolutely clear that the investigation of crimes is a matter for the police. All crimes should be investigated by the police. That is the role of the police.
When victims come to the archdiocese, the Independent Commissioner advises them of their right to go to the police and encourages them to do so. If a victim requires support to go to the police, the Independent Commissioner assists them in doing so.
We have found that many victims do not want to go to the police. It is our experience that some victims of abuse find the process of a police investigation and the prospect of a public court trial too traumatic to contemplate.
Having said that, all victims are free to go to the police at any time, including after their claims have been addressed by the Melbourne Response.
While understandably the police want all crimes reported to them, this important factor must be balanced against the right of each victim to make their own decision, having regard to their own wellbeing and circumstances.
The archdiocese has always had a good working relationship with Victoria Police. We are fully co-operative with them and in no way obstruct their investigations.
Since the Melbourne Response was introduced, the Independent Commissioner has received about 330 complaints and he has upheld more than 320 of them. There has been no cover up. The Independent Commissioner has upheld complaints against priests who were investigated but not charged by the police and priests who had previously been charged but acquitted.
I also want to address some misconceptions about the Melbourne Response. First, victims are not subject to confidentiality. However, the archdiocese respects their confidentiality at all times and, for this reason, respects their decision about police reporting.
Second, in dealing with priests against whom complaints against children are upheld, I do not act on my own. In every instance I follow the recommendations of the Independent Commissioner.
Third, we believe the wishes of victims must be respected. If a victim wishes to report a matter to the police, the Independent Commissioner facilitates this. If a victim wishes the Independent Commissioner to report their complaint, he would do so. But if the victim does not want the allegations reported to the police, but does want the Independent Commissioner to investigate their complaint confidentially, we respect that wish.
Finally, let me say again that my primary pastoral concern is for victims. We cannot undo the sins of the past and I fully accept that, for some victims, no amount of compensation, counselling or apology will undo the terrible harm that has been done to them or address their profound sense of grievance.
Denis Hart is Archbishop of Melbourne.
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